Milk Run Hell!!
Copyright 1999 by Cdr Harold W King USN(Ret)
I have been trying to put Vietnam behind me for many years. The "Desert Storm" situation rekindles old memories. For me it is "Line Backer I and II." For others, "Pork Chop Hill, Pearl Harbor, D-Day”, and on and on. You can bet our new veterans will go through similar experiences and have lasting memories and constant nightmares.
It was comforting for me to see a special report last week that said many of our war veterans, from all battle fronts are experiencing the same emotions. I suppose for that reason, I can more easily recall some of the experiences, thoughts, pleasantries, and misgivings that will remain with me as long as I live. The nightmares are back more often now.
I was a Naval Flight Officer (Bombardier Navigator) assigned to Heavy Attack Squadron Two (VAH2) aboard the USS Coral Sea in 1965. On the afternoon of 7 February 1965 our first attack against North Vietnam was launched. The mission of my crew was to provide inflight refueling for the strike force. In the days that followed, my crew became one of the few to ever drop a bomb in anger from the A3 aircraft.
My next combat was in A6 "Intruder" aircraft, with Medium Attack Squadron 165 (VA165), out of Whidbey Island Washington. During my stay, 1967-69, we had two Vietnam cruises aboard the USS Ranger.
The policy of the era was, two Gulf of Tonkin cruises made you "combat limited." Great, when I returned home in the spring of 1969, I had been shot at for the last time in Vietnam, right? Wrong.
In August of 1972, I received a call from my assignment detailer in Washington, DC. He informed me that I was to detach from my present duties in two days and report to Medium Attack Squadron 75 (VA75). In the first place, to be ordered to a change of duty so quickly was unheard of. In the second place, my new squadron was on "Yankee Station" and the bombing of North Vietnam had just resumed.
I immediately told the detailer, "Hey, buddy, you aren't doing your homework. In the first place, VA75 is aboard Saratoga "Boat" on "Yankee Station." In the second place, I have been on three, count them, a BIG THREE, combat cruises. That means, my friend, that I am more than "COMBAT LIMITED."
His reply was, "The combat limitation rule doesn't apply to me any more. CNO Zumwalt has made a decision." I was ordered to pack my bags and detach in two days.
Well, to make a long story short, I wrangled a two week delay to wrap up my personal business and to try and convince my family that it was the right thing to do. I'll tell you, that last part was a real chore and I don't think I ever did get it done properly.
I reported to the squadron at sea and luckily I knew all of the officers and most of the enlisted troops. I had helped train most of the flight crews in the A6 and its mission. Some of them were fellow flight instructors in VA42 at NAS Oceana, VA.
My good friend and Commanding Officer of the squadron, Charlie Earnest, immediately brought me up to date on operations and situations. He said that Bart Wade, another vet friend of mine, was joining the squadron too. He told me the reason we had been called was because they had people throw their wings in when the chips went down. They enjoyed the prestige of "Navy Wings of Gold" and extra flight pay until it came time for pay backs. I was thinking all the time that it sure didn't help my feelings that Bart and I were expendable cannon fodder. He told me that I was scheduled to fly with one of the senior lieutenants, that I had flown with in VA42 and knew to be an outstanding pilot.
Charlie also said he knew it had been a long time since I had seen flak. Therefore, I would take the "milk run" until I got back in the swing of things. He wanted me to fly daylight flights with my assigned pilot. I would take the night interdiction missions with him, Bill Greene (the X.O. and another old friend), or the Operations Officer, Don Lindland. I should have known what was coming.
The day sorties went well. Lt. Cook and I had some "Alpha Strikes," (something I never could get used to), and our share of the tanker support missions. My old friend Charlie was good to his word. My first night attack was with him. It was an early morning single plane attack on the boat docking facilities of Vinh. I remembered Vinh from my previous tours. Back then, those folks didn't appreciate at all being awakened in the wee hours of the morning.
We came screaming in, low over the water, to cross the beach; Charlie pulled the nose up slightly to gain a little altitude. You must understand, our night tactics were to fly between 50 and 500 feet at 360 to 400 knots when over enemy territory. When I say he pulled the nose up, we were climbing to 50'to cross the beach. Shortly after our "Feet Dry" call, it was most evident that those people still didn't appreciate an early wake-up call. In short, they tried real hard to dislodge our rear ends from the rest of our anatomy.
Now Charlie was jinking to avoid the AAA, but I was lucky. I could pull the hood of my RADAR scope around my head and concentrate on the bombing run. We released 18 five hundred pound bombs on the docks and got ourselves back to the ocean, some how, all in one piece. Thank God they didn't shoot a SAM at us. I really didn't need to see ALL the flak on the first night.
Things rolled along pretty well for a couple days. Then I got my flight that will live with me forever. Bill Greene and I were scheduled to hit the northeast railway that ran from the Chinese border to Hanoi. Doesn't sound too bad you say? Running the railroad would not have been so bad, but there were "Rules of Engagement" and limitations. First, we were restricted from bombing in a large radius of Hanoi, a 25 mile radius sticks in my mind. We had to respect a buffer zone of the Chinese border. I don't remember its width but I do remember there were only a few miles of the rail line left that we could have at. Now, that should tell you something. The enemy had concentrated all of their AAA defenses in that limited space. We knew that some, probably most of the gunners were Chinese. They knew that we had to attack from the east, or the west. Attack from the south was ruled out. You would have to fly over downtown Hanoi and you could not avoid the border buffer zone. Since our approach was from the Gulf, it took a looping turn from down south to come in from the west; most attacks were down the funnel from the east.
Bill and I, as usual, had the wee hours of the a.m. catapult launch. We planned to "slightly" overfly Hanoi, a bit south, and make an easy loop back to the north and hit them from the west. I don't remember the Rules of Engagement saying anything about sightseeing in the Hanoi, just no bombing.
As it turned out, one way was about as good (or bad) as the other, but it had been some time since anyone went through the back door at night. We figured that twelve bombs would be enough for the railroad. That gave us the center rack to use on the little nerds that would try to get us enroute and on egress.
We crossed the beach on course and on time with the center bomb rack armed and ready. As anticipated, we got some pretty stiff opposition as we proceeded to our attack initial point. Surprisingly there was very little shooting in the Hanoi area. Bill was continually jinking and lining up for runs on the enemy AAA sites. He expended the center rack just before we reached the Hanoi radius. Just at the radius, we pulled high enough for me to pick the target up on RADAR and update the computer. Then we got low again. All the way to the IP, Bill was flying the 50'RADAR Altimeter warnings. We got to the IP, started the turn and rolled out on the attack heading. Bill squeezed a few more turns on the engines. Our old "Grumman Iron Works" beast of burden responded. Within a few seconds we were doing more than 450 knots. I don't think anyone knew just how fast those old birds would go with a load of bomb, but, I guarantee you it's not nearly fast enough when you are scared.
Just as I got comfortable, concentrating on the finals of target identification and the bomb run solution, I made a mistake. I looked out of the cockpit just as a solid 2wall of AAA started coming up. I remember thinking, "how could a gnat get through that?" There was no need to jink, it was just as bad one place as another. Again, I had the relief of seeking protection in the hood of my RADAR set. I figured there was only one way we could get through that clag. I remember praying, "Please God, take a real good liking to us."" About then I felt the old A6 engines really start whining as Bill "safety wired" the throttles to the firewall. Some how, we made our run and got through unscathed. I believe the target was well hit, but I had no desire to go back for BDA.
I couldn't believe that we had lived through it. Then it hit me, we are on the deck, screaming God only knows how fast and there is a karst ridge ahead. I got back in the hood in time to see a solid line of ground returns across the scope a few miles ahead. There was nothing behind the line and that means one of two things. You are either approaching a lake or you are lower than the approaching landscape.
It didn't take me long to remember that there were no lakes in the area. I called "CLIMB, CLIMB, CLIMB." Bill and the plane responded and we cleared the karst, by how much I don't know.
After the experience of the past five minutes or so, the gunners on our egress were amateurs, we just ignored them. For some reason the old WWII saying, "There are no Atheists in foxholes." I immediately added "or over the Hanoi area."
When we were safely "feet wet" and headed for the "Sara," I told Bill that I knew people who had gotten the Navy Cross for missions like that. In his dry sense of humor he said, "take your two points toward a strike Air Medal and forget it."
After landing and mission debrief, good old Charlie met us in the squadron ready room. Over a hot cup of coffee, he wanted to know if we had any comments about the mission. I said most emphatically, "Skipper, forget about these damn "milk runs, " I will take my missions just like everybody else!!!"